Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Book Review: Sarah's Key

I have just finished reading Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay, and am left with conflicting thoughts and feelings. The first half of the novel toggles between wartime Paris and the round-up and deportation of French Jews, and contemporary Paris still in denial of France’s role—particularly the role of French authorities—in facilitating that despicable act of collaboration.

The story the fictional Julia Jarmond tells the reader is a compelling one: an American journalist married into a Parisian family, she unearths the lamentable history of Sarah, a young Jewish girl who tries to save her little brother from discovery at the time of the round-up by locking him in a hidden closet—not imagining she will never be allowed to return to let him out. She herself eludes her family’s captors and survives the war, but not the guilt for her brother’s death that she carries with her in the subsequent years, along with the key to the closet that becomes its symbol. In the meantime Julia, our narrator, who is undergoing her own personal trauma, slowly uncovers a distressing link between her husband’s family and the unpalatable past.

The story of the Velodrome d’Hiver bears retelling, whether in fictional or non-fictional form. This infamous sports arena is where thousands of Jewish families were held in inhuman circumstances and forcibly split up—first husbands from their wives and children, then mothers from their children--on their way to the Auschwitz death camp. The arresting police and the guards were all French; their cruelty and anti-Semitism added gratuitous homegrown injury to the Nazi insult—and their collaboration was sadly not untypical. It’s a part of the country’s history that must not be air-brushed over or forgotten, and the author does us all a service in reminding us of that brutal episode.

That said, I have to say that I found both plot and characters of "Sarah’s Key" to be unconvincing. That Julia allows her privileged self to become the central character in a tale about the Holocaust is distressing. That she proves herself so weak and vacillating undermines her credibility and our respect for her voice. I also find it hard to believe in her relationships—whether with her faithless husband or her petulant in-laws. Then, too, unhappily, the plot feels like a put-up job, contrived to suit the writer’s purposes rather than deriving necessarily from the beliefs and actions of her characters, whose mutual silences and denials on almost every issue stretch credulity. They seemed to me not only unconvincing but also, alas, not especially likeable. It’s clear that historical and personal denial are a part of the novel’s theme, but even so I kept wishing that someone, for God’s sake, would simply tell the truth—about themselves, their feelings, their relationships. I kept wanting vainly for there to be someone, one person, with whom I could find common ground.

A large part of the satisfaction in reading a novel is watching the characters learn and grow; to be, in Buddhist terms, released from some part of their suffering and, by extension, from some part of our own. But just as Sarah, who becomes Julia’s alter ego, clings to the key that symbolizes her pain, so Julia clings to the suffering of this woman she pursues. She ends up, not released from her own demons through her experience, but still—no, once again enmeshed, this time, improbably, with Sarah’s son, who bears the name of the little brother whom she lost. The reader—this reader—felt manipulated rather than rewarded. Rather than clarifying her subject’s grief, Julia stands rather plaintively between the reader and her subject. And that’s a shame, because the history warrants a more fully honest and transparent treatment, whether in fictional or non-fictional form.


Luxembourg said...

I have read many books about the Nazi occupation of Germany and the low countries, but I do not recall reading a novel about the period that they occupied France.
I do not know Paris so I cannot vouch for the accuracy of de Rpsnay;s depiction of that city, but I do know NYC and its environs. Some of that just didn't ring true to me and cast doubt on her accuracy about the European section.
The book did hold my interest; I certainly felt the pain caused by the unintended role she played in her brother's death.

rick said...

what clarification of the subject's grief do you need clarified? She did commit suicide afterall Clarifying the reason why should not be difficult.

Luxembourg-the German Nazis did not occupy Germany they came from there.